Everyone knows Lake Champlain has got ‘em, but nobody has seen anything quite like this in a major tournament on the big northern lake. Day one of the Costa FLW Series Northern Division opener presented by Power-Pole was windy and rough, but the pros absolutely blasted the fish. Brett Carnright leads with 21 pounds, 7 ounces, but the rest of the pack isn’t far behind at all.
It may have happened before, but it’s certainly been a long time since a big tournament has hit the smallmouth spawn on Champlain with such precision. For some reason, the lake is a little behind this year, even more than it was in 2017, and the smallies are all over the beds. Of the top 10, only Cory Johnston caught any largemouth at all, and everyone targeted smallmouths on beds.
Smallmouth don’t usually win on Champlain – they’re part of the puzzle – but, this year could be the year. Even so, some of the top pros are still thinking green, and that may end up being the difference if the smallmouth spawn pattern falters at all.
2. Austin Felix – Eden Prairie, Minn. – 20-15
The last time Austin Felix fished an FLW event on Champlain was the 2016 FLW Tour season finale. Then, he banked the first pro top 10 of his career with spawning smallmouths amid a fiasco of broken down boats.
By 9:30 a.m., Felix had boxed up four bedding smallmouths for about 17 pounds. Shortly thereafter he caught a 3-pounder to get to around 19 pounds. Then he found one more 4-pounder in the afternoon to get up over 20.
“I think I can still go 17.5 tomorrow, but a lot of my 3.75 and better are gone,” says Felix of his prospects going forward. “But, I’ve got a lot of 3-pounders that I’ve marked and then I’ll just go looking again and catch what I can.
“The wind slowed me down a lot to get to five,” adds the Minnesota pro. “Usually you can just run up to them and catch them. But it took me a while to find where they were sitting and you’d get beat to hell using the flogger in the waves.”
3. Ron Nelson – Berrien Springs, Mich. – 20-11
Last year’s Champlain champ, Ron Nelson got off to another great start with five big smallies. The only issue is that it could have been even better – around 10:45 a.m. he briefly hooked and lost a largemouth that he says was over 5 pounds.
“Today was strictly spawning fish,” says Nelson. “I ran a section of the lake today and caught my five by about 8 o’clock. I think I caught one new 4-pounder today, so I guess I caught six. And anything that was around 3 pounds I let my co-angler catch.”
Nelson says that with calmer water on day two he may chase largemouths more, but seems pretty confident in his ability to catch a bag of smallmouth in the upper teens with relative ease.
4. Cory Johnston – Cavan, Ont. – 20-6
Three-time Northern Division Angler of the Year Cory Johnston is looking awfully dangerous after day one on Champlain. The elder of the dynamic Canadian duo, Johnston weighed-in a 5-13 largemouth for his kicker and actually only brought two smallmouths to weigh-in.
“I went to some bedded fish, and there were some guys already on the two I was going to start on,” says Johnston. “So that threw a wrench in my game plan. I ended up catching about 17 pounds of smallmouths and then went largemouth fishing for about an hour and caught three big ones and left them alone.”
Johnston says he’s “pretty dialed in” on the largemouths, and if he can keep it up the ability to add a 5+ kicker could be a game changer for him.
“I’m doing something a little different than everyone else,” reveals the Canadian pro. “I’m covering water and catching them on reaction baits. I’m going to do a bit of both tomorrow, my biggest smallmouth is still on a bed, but I want to save as many as I can. I’m definitely going to fish for some largemouths and try to get a kicker.”
5. Stephen Estes – Auburn, N.H. – 19-13
Fishing his first Costa FLW Series event since 2013, Stephen Estes got in on the bedding game too.
“It was a rough start to the day, there was a lot of wind,” says Estes. “But I had my fish marked and I just went to them and I was done by 8:45. They’re kinda spread out all over the place, one here, one there, so I had to run some. I’m not a largemouth guy – I came into this one looking for all smallmouth.”
Estes says he hit them pretty hard today. While he doesn’t have 18 or another 19 pounds just waiting for him, Estes believes he can rustle up something in the neighborhood of 17 pounds tomorrow. That said, there seems to still be fish pulling up, so there’s a good chance he could stumble on some more quality fish once he begins looking around.